As he watched the alien creature that had KO'd an entire base full of Users in one attack, Derrick considered his options.
Attacking had some merit to it. His opponent was wounded and had to be running low on both auril and manna after the many impressive combinations of both those powers it had displayed. And while every second wasted was another second of healing for Derrick, that was just as true for the monster he was fighting. Probably more true actually.
This monster was tough though, and Derrick couldn't quite see himself winning against it in a straight up slugging match. If he was at his best, maybe. But now, after hours of fighting? No, probably not. That would require a level of optimism that was alien to Derrick; orphan, network engineer and recently, Fighter in service to the System. Replaying the fight in his head, they had only gotten this far because it had been taking it easy on them. He was sure of that. Why else would it hold back on using that area of effect stunning blast? Unless there were conditions for its use, it should have blasted them from cover, before crawling out of the ruins. In fact, even a few blasts from its hands would have ended the fight fast.
“How about we call it a draw?” Derrick offered the wounded monstrosity. It was pretty obviously damaged, missing an arm, some fingers and a wide strip of flesh from its chest. Even its gait was off, it was clearly limping. It had to be feeling the pain, right?
The creature actually stopped its advance and cocked its head at him, managing to display puzzlement despite its utterly inhuman face.
“Victory is already won,” it gurgled, its three remaining hands hanging casually from its sides. “Has already been seized at the moment you listened and heard. Now we dance to appease the meddling masters in the invisible. Who eyeless, panic at the glimpse of me. The blood and dreams are my gifts, born of shared contempt for fate and holy act of rapine.”
Derrick winced. Ugh. Someone really needed to update their translation software but he was pretty sure that hadn't been agreement.
The most interesting part had been the sentence about meddling masters and their lack of vision. Judging by the notification about a disrupted network he'd gotten just before this fight, it could only be talking about the entities that seemed to be running the System. Which didn't seem to be any friends of his. He definitely wanted to know more about those and was about to ask when the tall creature tensed and launched itself forward.
Lash, commanded Derrick, hoping the combat drug would save his life once more. There was an odd tingle and numbness when he used it. Probably a side effect of using it multiple times with Spur keeping him going. Mixing drugs was a bad idea, but far from his biggest problem at the moment though.
Just as Derrick drew a knife with his off hand, the creature's three remaining hands shot forward and Derrick barely managed to sidestep out of their grasp, fending of the last one by threatening it with a sweeping arc of his axe. Even with Lash amping up his reaction speed, it was hard to defend against a three-armed opponent. He banished all thoughts but the creature's movements and his own internal resources. He readied both auril and manna for use, knowing they were the tools that would win or lose this fight.
Another attempt was made to overwhelm the axe-wielding User, the creature effectively using its long and numerous limbs to harry him. Derrick was too busy defending to counterattack, managing only to keep the creature's clawed fingers from seizing him. He noticed that while the creature was still faster than him, even Lashed, it hadn't gone unscathed. Its attacks were clumsy, lacking the grace necessary to disarm him or pierce his defences.
Derrick managed a solid hit on its forearm, injecting a knot of malignant auril into the creature and causing it to flinch. A fact he took advantage of, pressing the attack himself, aiming to stick his knife right in its damaged armor.
No luck, it pulled back, avoiding the blow and managing to land a palm strike to his chest with a sneaky strike from below. Derick tried to embed his knife it that arm but he saw a tiny flicker of silver light as the blow landed and he was sent flying backwards instead.
The air was driven out of his lungs as his feet left the ground. Luckily even without manna, his armor offered a lot of protection from bludgeoning attacks. He flew a few feet and managed to land on his feet, only stumbling when his bad leg flared in pain as it worked to keep him standing.
The creature didn't capitalize on its successful blow, it was instead staring at its auril infected hand, turning it at eye level. After a second of examination, it turned its eyeless gaze to Derrick and silver light flashed around its wrist, banishing the malignant auril Derrick had worked so hard to put there.
Damn, Derick thought, he was hoping it wouldn't be able to do that. Although maybe it could only easily cleanse its extremities? He needed to land a body blow and not give it space. The sooner the better. He was playing it too safe, he realized, but he needed to go all out. He would never do any damage without taking risks. He needed to focus on the attack. To get his head in the game.
Derrick the Red took a deep breath and reached into himself. He drew on memories of the mad melee from earlier, from Kate's scream and the Users who had been clawed and burned during the attack. That time the Legion had hit him with a car and the desperate fight against the human Vanguard in a dark apartment. What was the point of fear now?
Monster after monster, always moving forward. Derrick the Red met this latest enemies gaze and felt something stir. Unbidden, auril seethed in his veins and his tired muscles trembled, not from exhaustion but eagerness. He ripped the bottom off his mask, dropping the breathing apparatus to the pavement and revealing a toothy grin, a mirror or the creatures own.
With every breath, with every beat of his heart he felt himself grow stronger. Every step. Every swing, was a victory.
It was, Derrick knew, a completely untrustworthy feeling. One that could very well be coming from the very creature he was fighting. Did he care? No, it was all that was keeping him going. He didn't regret what he had written into himself through auril. As Scynil had said, auril was the truth of yourself. If his truth was a little monstrous, so what?
He hated this grinning thing and what it had done. What it was. He imagined it dragging humans away to perform whatever unspeakable things it did to convert them to the Grey Legion. He took that spark of anger and charged, hacking away as viciously as he could, hoping to do as much damage as possible before Lash faded. He used manna for these blows, letting his auril recover and using the strength boost to batter defending hands away.
It was reckless but necessary and the gamble paid off. He broke through the creature's guard and practically chest to chest with it, managed to land a Sapping Strike while burying a knife to the hilt in the stump of a left shoulder.
The pale creature shuddered, and Derrick finished the attack with a blow to his foe's head with his trusty axe. He failed to add either manna or auril though, having spent his concentration on the first hit. He was disappointed to see the axe barely leave a scratch. It was then that Lash faded, and he was forced back by both of the creature's flailing right hands.
He retreated, suffering a flurry of weak impacts that delivered bruises and cuts but nothing serious. Derrick was honestly too tired to keep the attack up anyway. A dull ache was building in his muscles and it was getting difficult to catch his breath. How long had it been since the fight started? A while anyway. He noticed that the first rays of light were shining over the tops of buildings, announcing the arrival of dawn.
Breathless helped him recover quickly from exertion but it was just an F ranked trait. He fought for breath and watched his opponent carefully. It was drooping to its left side a little and made no move to attack. The Sapping strike must be weakening it.
“You’re not much of a fighter, are you?” Derrick the Red accused. “That’s not what you're for. I'd bet your usual thing is to lurk around unseen at the edges of battles rather than getting directly involved. Using your powers to heal, scout and create weakness. Those missing Users from the battle would be your work, taken down with a gesture. The only weapon you have is the knife I stuck in you.”
The creature didn't disagree. It just looked at him, very unimpressed.
“Insult? I am a Lurker of loving purpose,” it stated, obviously struggling for eloquence. “What of you? Bearer of arms, with a wolf’s scrutiny and a cauldron of curses? You hunted and vanquished the conscripted with great skill but true victories belong not to soldiers, no matter how accomplished. No blade, however sharp, cuts the thrones that would grind us beneath them. It is the rhythm of sacrifice that brings them crumbling down, hearts and boots all beating together. Do you not remember? You have glimpsed what it means to matter, tasted the meat of it. If it is my place to lurk unseen, weave flesh and mirror tyranny, I accept these roles gleefully. The Thrones must break, we must have Salvation.”
A sermon, there was really no other way to describe the alien's speech. If he had hated the creature less and wasn't so exhausted, this would have been really interesting. But he did and was, so the entire time it was talking he was preparing to kill it. He wanted to rip it apart, simply for being in his way. He attacked again and this time the Lurker met him halfway, his knife still buried in its side.
He was annoyed to find that he had lost whatever advantage he'd had. The creature began to block his strikes with manna fortified hands, resisting auril and the sharpness of his weapons with well timed parries. Getting tired, Derrick had to retreat to prevent the Lurker's long fingers from ripping his weapons away from him. At the last second, just when he thought he was clear, a grey hand arced out and tore flesh from his lower face.
Tithe paid, the grinning Lurker let him fall a good twenty feet back without chasing.
Derrick tasted blood but it was probably a shallow wound. Just another sexy scar, it didn't even hurt much, nothing like that time acid had splashed onto him. Still, he was going to get even for this, he just needed...
The Lurker of Loving Purpose raised a glowing hand at him, stopping Derrick mid-thought.
“You walked the very edge of pure satisfaction,” The Lurker said. “Of shaping this ruin to your service. It could have been a noble beginning. Instead, it shall be a noble end.”
Son of a bitch. Desperate, Derrick channelled as much manna into his gauntlets as he could and took a boxer's stance.
It still felt like getting hit with a tidal wave that went right through you. Muscles spasmed as his auril was ripped from him and his vision went blurry. Only for a second though, a moment later, his auril came roaring back and blurry vision turned red. He was going to rip... He blinked and a halo ringed hand slammed into his forehead.
Once more he found himself empty of auril. Stripped of power. He tried to summon it back but found he couldn't. There was nothing, not even a spark.
Gah. Everything hurt so much. Stripped of the filter and enervation of auril, he was overwhelmed by agony. Derrick fell to his knees and barely managed not to fall further. Even breathing was a labour now, his throat felt tight and unresponsive.
Derrick felt steel strong fingers dig into his collar and drag him off the ground, dangling him like a puppet.
Was the Lurker saying something? He couldn't tell, there was a ringing in his ears. Was it dragging him away? No, it would inject him with something first, like it had Scynil. At least it probably couldn't carry more than him and Scynil. The other human Users might get away safely. That wasn't nothing, he supposed. Not quite enough.
Marshalling his will, he tried to protect himself by the only means he had left, manna. Maybe he could reinforce himself to prevent himself from being disabled. The User reached into his Manna Core and felt himself fall into it instead of just squeezing out manna. His entire awareness snapped to focusing on a strange landscape that felt like it was halfway into the Fold. He felt currents of alien energies flow around him and the sensations of pain and weariness fade.
Huh, was this because of how tired he was? Not good. He needed to get back....
What was with that humming noise? And why did this place seem so different? It was almost placid compared to his last visit. Placid and yet stiff. It was barely noticeable but something was resisting his attempt to gather manna.
Derrick concentrated on this environment. It was eerily calm and something nearby shone like a beacon. Something that was connected to himself, if only by the slightest of connections. A thread of silver light that seemed to be pulsing faintly as if it and him shared a heartbeat.
That could only be the Lurker and it was somehow controlling the Fold around them. He could make out a silver barrier on the edge of his perception, blocking his sight in every direction. Huh, this must be how it had cut off the area from the System. Yes, he could see it now, a sphere of influence coming from the Lurker, supported by a web of strange manna. A construct that could cut off connections to Manna Hubs. Cores like his and the Lurker’s however seemed like they were harder to deal with.
They were spikes driven deep into the Fold, hooking into multiple layers and drinking in power. The dimensions here was messed up and hard to understand though. His core was existing across multiple realities... Hmmm, his core was a flaw in the Lurkers field. A straw jutting out of it. Could he use that fact? Try and damage the Lurker's ability to isolate the local Fold.
It was pretty much the only thing he could do at this point.
His attempts to create more 'spikes' of expand his failed, unsurprisingly. So, Derrick drew power into the shell, as much raw manna as he could take. He did nothing with it though, just let it carve a wound through his enemies manna control. That did little if anything, so he began to stir it. Trying to create a storm in a bottle.
He felt pressure begin to build but it wasn't enough to do anything. Besides, he felt the Lurker working to calm the raw manna he excited. It probably was unconsciously undoing his work, barely noticing his effort to sabotage it. Was there anything else he could try?
Yes! He did have a second type of manna he could try and use. Weird that he'd forgotten about it. It was probably because the System hadn't even bothered to name it. It had just called it a string of letters and numbers. That could be to his advantage here, an obscure type of manna would likely be beyond the Lurkers ability to control.
How to use it though? The User concentrated on his core and tried to feel a connection like he had to raw manna. The raw manna came from what seemed like an invisible storm, all frenzied currents and the phantom smell of ozone. There. A second connection felt like mist shrouded scenery, curling waves of primary colors obscuring tantalizingly familiar shapes. Shapes that seemed to change and move when he stopped paying attention to them. Sometimes it almost seemed like alien scenery, then unreadable writing or even oddly familiar people. It was both fascinating and somehow very tiring to look at.
It dredged up disturbing feelings from something he couldn't quite remember. He rallied his will and tried to drag the manna out of whatever alien place it was. Oddly, the manna resisted his brute force approach. It was like grabbing smoke with your mind.
It did seem to be drifting his way but he was in in kind of a hurry, there was no telling what unspeakable things were happening to him or people he cared about as he played around here.
The more he focused on it though, the faster it seemed to move, undulating towards him in bursts and waves. Like a growing thing, he realized and saw it adapt to that idea, the wisps of vibrant mist subtly transforming to look like flowers bursting into an endlessly growing stream of colors. The strange energy began pouring out of his core and flooding whatever layer of the fold the Lurker was manipulating.
A flower of a thousand colors grew around him in an instant and the silver threads of alien power warped and thrashed as this thick new type of manna invaded the area around them. He felt one or two threads snap as the two types of manna met but the massive damage he was hoping for hadn't happened. Almost as soon as it had appeared, the manna had spent itself and faded. And even though he was summoning more, it lacked the energy of its first appearance. There was no violence or menace to this stuff. It just wafted around, mostly uncontrollable and prone to just vanishing the moment you stopped looking at it. On the rare occasions it did touch the silver framework, it just caused it to shimmer and warp before it was spent and the threads returned to normal.
It was doing something but nothing that helped him. He had no idea what to do with this stuff. While raw manna leapt to the user’s commands, this stuff barely reacted to his will. In hindsight, maybe he should have chosen a shape more dangerous than flowers.
Shit. He'd really been hopping for at least a last 'fuck you' at least, before the Lurker dragged him off to be converted. It had been much more impressive when the manna had first arrived, it had exploded outward violently. Why not now?
He stopped his introspection as the manna seemed to darken and become denser. He stared at it hopefully, but no, it must have been a trick of perception. Briefly it had reminded him of a storm cloud, which did give him an idea.
He summoned a tiny amount of raw manna and watched the rainbow mist blossom once more. Churning and rolling outwards for a dozen meters before it spent itself. The small wave hit the shining silver beacon that was the Lurkers representation in this realm and he was rewarded by everything shuddering.
Aho. It was the raw manna he'd summoned earlier that was the trick. This type of man seemed to react with others. The mixing of the two was what had really kicked things into high gear.
He tore raw manna from its home while coaxing the other to himself. As a storm of exploding petals filled space, the Lurker's silver shell shivered and snapped. It came apart like steel cables coming off a suspension bridge, whipping the manna into even more violence. The sheer riot of energy and color throwing Derrick back to reality and into his aching flesh.
Where he was still being held above the ground by the Lurker, its teeth just inches from his face. It felt like only seconds had passed.
Manna network restored. Implant re-connected to Network. Updating...
Almost certainly going to die, Derrick the Red stared into the eyeless face and smiled. His opponent, the Lurker of Loving Purpose, did not smile back. Instead, it looked off into the distance and frowned at the dawning sun, seeming to forget about the limp User in his hands.
Suddenly it pulled him closer, grabbing his leg, making Derrick think it was securing him. Instead, it used its improved grip to to toss the stunned User away like a Frisbee. For a second everything was a nauseating blur before he felt a phantom wind hit him and a second later small but strong hands grabbed him and gently lowered him to the ground. At the same time, a somewhat squeaky voice rang out.
“Fleeing will not save you foul creature,” the speaker stated proudly. “The System calls for your head and I have hunted beasts much more dangerous than you. Let us test...”
Derrick saw a flash of small blue feet run past him and decided whatever was happening was no longer his problem. Blissfully, he passed out, a dozen notifications hovering on the edge of his vision.